« Go back

Looking at Foreign Policy Through a Gender Lens


It is just over a year since the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade adopted a ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment’ strategy. However, international comparisons show there is still plenty of room to increase the gender focus as part of the forthcoming foreign policy white paper.  

Australian foreign policy should have a strong interest in developing a female perspective. While women in Australia have had the legal right to stand for federal parliament since 1902, it took 111 years to appoint the first female foreign affairs minister.

Making progress, losing ground

Ostensibly, today’s Australia’s diplomatic focus seems progressive. The foreign affairs portfolio includes human rights, which encompasses gender equality and promotes the elimination of sexual discrimination, and in 2011 the first ambassador for women and girls was included. The foreign affairs minister is directly responsible for the ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment’ strategy, which states that:

“We will lead efforts to integrate gender equality wherever possible in high-level policy dialogues across the UN, in economic policy forums such as the G20 and in regional organisations.”

Although Australia has a ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment’ strategy, the world sees it as significantly lagging. In the World Economic Forum’s Political Empowerment subindex report, Australia is ranked 61st out of the 145 economies measured, securing its position behind developing economies including, but not limited to, Burundi, Cuba and Rwanda. Moreover, Australia has continued to drop significantly since 2006 when it was ranked 32nd in “closing the gender gap of female political participation”. This indicates substantial regression.

It would appear not only fair but economically and politically viable to include more women in foreign policy in 2017 and beyond in order to ensure sustainable progress and safeguard peace within our region for current and future generations.

Furthermore, it is evident that peace is not always front of mind for the current ‘leader of the free world’.

Researchers have confirmed that peace processes that include women at the negotiation level provide sustainable results, yet only 4 per cent of signatories to international peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women. Perhaps this is why the majority of women, of all ages, see significant obstacles in politics while only a minority of men, of all age groups, share that view.

Women without female leaders experience oppression as men continue to deprive women around the globe of their safety and their ability to contribute. Thus, it is of the utmost importance to encourage implementation of anti-discrimination policies and to have women in foreign affairs to distribute the message and drive outcomes to achieve the goals agreed to in a long list of declarations and conventions to which Australia is a signatory, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Marching toward the future

Appointing women to powerful diplomatic posts signals a country’s progressive attitude. If Australia were to act on a female-friendly foreign policy, countries wishing to engage with us may reflect and contemplate relinquishing their status quo in order to deliver the outcomes advocated by APEC, OECD, the UN and many other international forums which advocate for the elimination of sex discrimination. In a 2016 report, former UN Secretary General Mr Ban Ki-moon stated:

“Acknowledgement of the importance of gender equality and women’s social, economic and political empowerment by states and non-state actors has not been matched by concrete policy implementation and demonstrable change on the ground. Significant and sometimes growing gender gaps and discrimination against women and girls remain across virtually all sectors and regions.”

Furthermore, the political power in foreign affairs remains in the hands of men, even though foreign affairs ministers claim to prioritise gender equality in the international fora and diplomats are directed to enhance efforts that promote women’s political participation. Today only 13 per cent of incumbent foreign affairs ministers within UN member economies are women.

Although women are engaged as policy experts, the UN report states that they continue to “wage unique campaigns for political inclusion”, for gender justice, for “sexual democracy” and for the “right to be politically engaged”. This is because—for many economies around the globe—UN goals are only about fulfilling basic requirements in order to acquire votes and obtain the funding necessary for political survival. Reinforcing stereotypes appears to provide the patriarchy with the unrestrained ability to differentiate between women and men, limiting the power of women.

Considering Australia’s ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment’ strategy applies across all work undertaken by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it would be historically significant if the first female foreign affairs minister in Australia confirms Australia’s commitment to include women in the 2017 White Paper—and perhaps even note the recent announcement made by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Sweden Margot Wallström, the woman responsible for the world’s first ‘feminist foreign policy’.

The Swedish minister argued:

“We need to show that there is a link between our internal and external action and that we apply a gender perspective when we build our organisations, form our negotiating teams and staff our missions …What is important is that the realisation is growing, that gender equality is not a women’s issue but rather a make-or-break issue.”

Australia needs to consider a similar approach because we have a long way to go with our national and international gender agenda and we need to confirm that equality is not just a word, but instead take specific strategic actions to illustrate that we actually take sex discrimination seriously—today and in the future. We must discourage comments like those made by John Howard, former prime minister of Australia, who said: “It is a fact of society that women play a significantly greater part of fulfilling the caring role in our communities, which inevitably places some limits on their capacity”.

Unfortunately, Howard is not alone. President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing students at the University of Istanbul, said that “a woman who refuses maternity and gives up housekeeping faces the threats of losing her freedom. She is lacking and is a half [a person] no matter how successful she is.” Moreover, he said: “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing, it is against nature.”

Rational responses to irrational ideology

We know that women have the capacity, ability, education and legal right to participate at all political levels. Furthermore, considering research demonstrates that male elected officials generally sponsor fewer women-friendly bills than their female counterparts it is vital that this White Paper include a strategic agenda for women in our foreign policy.

Understanding that we live in a world where economics dominates the political, national and international space, one could conclude that giving the majority of the population the right to participate in our foreign affairs and trade fora would be beneficial for everyone—especially considering the number of women who today run their own businesses around the globe. Empowering women is an important development objective on the grounds of both fairness and efficiency, both of which lead to growth.

Copious reports released by APEC, CEDAW, the G20, the OECD, the UN, UNWomen and others demonstrate that improvement for women has been unsatisfactorily slow, with areas of inaction and regression in every economy. Now is the right time to take action rather than continue with the same dialogue producing few real results. We must ensure that Australia’s foreign policy includes a gender lens.

Yolanda Vega is a doctoral student and represented Australia at the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women’s Economic Summit.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

Published March 7, 2017

Share